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Underdogs of the Wine World Finally Recognized in Wine List of the Year, says Pascaline Lepeltier

By Alex Hunt MW |  November 29 2020

This interview was performed prior to the announcement of Pascaline’s farewell to Rouge Tomate

This year, the Wine List of the Year was awarded to Rouge Tomate Chelsea, a NYC-based restaurant focusing on naturally-sourced food and wine, headed up by French-born head sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier and her all-star wine team.

The Rouge Tomate wine program claimed two category awards: Wine List of the Year and Best Long Wine List in the World – in addition to the highest rating of a three-star award.

The wine list is composed of approximately 90 per cent natural, biodynamic, and organic wines. Lepeltier admits not all natural wines are good despite their good intentions; there’s no protection against the usual suspects that can spoil a wine. Though when they’re made in this natural way and it works; they really can be something special. Not only is Lepeltier putting forth a wine list that is 90 per cent natural or organic, but a list of wines that are good, and of course, award-worthy.

WFW caught up with Pascaline after the restaurant’s win, to hear about how the team celebrated, and discuss wines with “soul”, inspiration for the list and recent regions of interest. Read on for the full interview.

Congratulations on the success of Rouge Tomate Chelsea in the World’s Best Wine Lists 2017. What does it mean to you to not only receive the high star rating (three), but to claim two category awards – ‘Best Long Wine List in the World’ and ‘Wine List of the Year’ – and in your first awards appearance as well?

This is a fantastic, tremendous honor and the team and I still can’t really believe it. We worked a lot on this list, with the idea to have a wine for everybody, from all over, because the passion and commitment for terroir-driven, genuine wines has never been that strong… and to be recognize by such a benchmark, meaningful publication like the WFW is just fantastic – not just for us, but for the vignerons and for our guests!

It also means for us that most of these wines, wine regions, vignerons, that for a long time are considered more like “underdogs” deserve the respect they embody in their work in every vintage! So this is fantastic! It means so much to me.

I really want to thank the judges for recognizing the work of all these vignerons, and that these wines, these types of farming – organic, biodynamic, and natural – are tremendously important for the quality of what we enjoy from a bottle!

How did you and the team celebrate?

We were working that night, we had a fantastic Chartreuse dinner with one of the fathers in charge of the production (in Tarragona) so we indulged with Chartreuse and with a bottle of Emmanuel Brochet’s Champagne a friend gave us at the restaurant’s opening in September to celebrate a special moment!

How do you describe the Rouge Tomate Wine List?

The very basic idea was to follow the philosophy of the food – we are what we eat, we are what we drink and more than ever we need to pay attention to the conditions – ecological, social, economical – of production. And not only it will be better for you, but these wines – beers, ciders, sakes, etc. – will probably taste more complex, denser, more layered, but they will also show a way to farm differently, which is maybe the future to follow! So more than 90% of the list was organic, biodynamic, natural… It has been an evidence for us, for me, since I started to work for Rouge 10 years ago.

The list just wants to pay tribute to the careful, dedicated work of vignerons from all around the world now that committed to the most observant farming in order to bottle their terroir, their place, their craft. There are beautiful wines everywhere, not only names and labels, and it is a pleasure to discover them, taste them. We wanted to have a bottle for everybody, at every price point – especially on the more affordable end – some classic benchmarks with age, some new comers very experimental, but in any case, a wine with personality. We worked with producers we could have a direct conversation with – and we could know personally – so we could understand why and how they were farming. And we wanted to do this not only for wines, but also for beers, ciders, sake, spirits, etc. Everything at the same level of selection. My team – Linda Milagros Violago, my amazing head sommelier, James Sligh and Paul Brady my sommeliers and Cristian Molina my head-bartender – worked a lot to understand how certain things were produced. We met a lot of producers, and we still do.

As the list was on its way to becoming a very big, probably impressive one for our guests, who were not wine geeks like us, I asked one of my dear friends, first assistant and then great sommelier, John-Paul Wilkinson, to draw us some maps, grapes, and icons, to make the list more approachable and lively, and give our guests a feeling of where the beverages was from.

What inspires your wine list?

The humble work of the vignerons I know, and how important it is to take care of the biodiversity, to work today with nature. Wine became too much of a luxury, mercantile, social-mediatized product…. and we are forgetting what it is originally – a way to share place, time, culture, sometimes with friends, sometimes with strangers, as a part of our daily life.

Rouge Tomate Chelsea, New York, USA

What’s unique about the Rouge Tomate wine list?

The open-mindedness, the desire to taste and offer the wines for what they are, whatever the trends, scores, etc. from everywhere. It is easy to say Burgundy is great… but which Burgundy? what about the Hautes Cotes, or Irancy? Or what about Aligote versus Chardonnay? And what about other totally underrated regions? I think some of the best white wines around are coming from Jurançon and Irouléguy, but you never see them, and the quality for value is fantastic! And what about what is happening in the southern part of Chile? And what about hybrids in Northern America, which are the only alternative today to be able to farm organically in certain extreme northern climates? But exploring implies to know, respect, enjoy the great classics! And everybody can coexist together, and it is awesome! Certain nights we can serve an old Rinaldi or Figeac, and then some Mtsvane from Niki Antadze from the Republic of Georgia, then a comparison of Franc de Pied from Huet and Domaine François Chidaine, or a Cabernet Franc from Ontario versus one from Breton’s Bourgueil! We are having a blast!

It is a list with a point of view, that everything starts with the dirt and the plant, and how the vigneron will take care of it. The list affirms that there are great wines everywhere, at a fair price, if you are curious to look for them!

How did you get to where you are today as the head sommelier at Rouge Tomate Chelsea?

This is a long story! I was hired in 2007 to help build a nutritional beverage charter for the opening of a NY restaurant, following the food program of Rouge Tomate called SPE – Sanitas Per Escam or Health Through Food. How to drink better was the key question… Could we drink to our health?

I did it for a year, then I took over the program in Brussels where the original location was, and I moved to NY in June 2009 to build the one in Manhattan. And I never left… growing the list from 300 to where it is today. We’ll see what is the next step now, it has been 10 years! [See Issue 49 for Pascaline’s Sommelier Story]

What bottle of wine would you normally reach for?

A great bottle of Loire Chenin, or a Cantillon, or a glass of Chartreuse Tarragona…

What advice would you give to others entering the World’s Best Wine Lists?

Have a list with a point of view! There are so many great bottles around the world, build a list with personality, as good wines are made by people with personality! And never forget your guests when you build the list!

What’s next for you and Rouge Tomate Chelsea?

We’ll see. I can’t stand still. There are so many things I want to explore and study and do. I just finished my first collaboration on a book with Alice Feiring: The Dirty Guide to Wine. It was an amazing experience I would like to repeat! I will definitely spend more times in vineyards in the next month… to try to understand a little better!

Pascaline has now left Rouge Tomate.

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